Magnetic Fields – Old Town School Of Folk Music (Chicago, IL)
Rock critics suck. They’re cynical, jaded elitists who take pleasure in panning the popular and touting the purposefully obscure. How else to explain the avalanche of unambiguous praise heaped on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 album, the triple-disc 69 Love Songs, by the likes of the Village Voice (#2 album of the year), Spin (#4), Rolling Stone (#9), and Magnet (Artist of the Year)?
OK, so that’s a little extreme. But 69 Love Songs is merely overlong and overrated. Across the sprawl of three discs, songwriter Stephin Merritt manages only to skewer sentimentalism as expressed by the love song in any genre, coming off as coldly smug as his target is cloyingly sappy. Merritt’s music is mostly tiresome Tin Pan Alley and tinny dance pop, punctuated with half-baked send-ups of other forms (rock, punk, jazz, Fleetwood Mac balladry, country). Thankfully, Merritt often delegates the vocal duties to other singers; his voice makes Leonard Cohen sound like Sinatra.
Onstage at Chicago’s Old Town School Of Folk Music for the first of two shows, the black-clad Merritt, who looks a little like Woody Allen, had less help. Of his stable of vocalists, only the smoky-throated Claudia Gonson made the trip, leaving Merritt to sing all but a handful of songs. The bandleader strummed ukulele and rhythm guitar, accompanied by Gonson (piano), Sam Davol (cello), John Woo (lead guitar and banjo), and an occasional canned drum track.
The album’s liner notes credit dozens of instruments, including an alphabet soup of keyboards and a closetful of percussion. The limits of live performance left many songs sounding bland in comparison.
Pre-show hype promised Magnetic Fields would perform all of 69 Love Songs in order over the two nights; on Friday, they played the first disc’s 23 songs and half of the second disc. Interesting gimmick, but it removed any element of surprise from the set list and ruled out dropping any of the record’s clutter of one-joke gags (“Love Is Like Jazz”) and other throwaways (“Reno Dakota”, “The Book Of Love”).
Highlights of the set came when the music proved more than an afterthought to Merritt’s dour declamations, as in the barnyard stomp of “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off” and the seasick slide guitar of “Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long”. (The latter would make the perfect B-side to a split single with Freakwater’s “Dog Gone Wrong”.)
At his best — and in moderation — Merritt is amusing. His facility with a cutting phrase (“A melody is like a pretty girl/Who cares if it’s the dumbest in the world”) is sure and sharp as any surgeon with a scalpel. His stage presence is so perfectly deadpan that an arched eyebrow can elicit a laugh.
But Merritt’s inability (or refusal) to edit himself is his doom. His weaker songs are just failed attempts at being cute, and even many of the better ones aren’t exactly original: “The One You Really Love” can’t hold a candle to Robyn Hitchcock’s “My Wife And My Dead Wife” in the devoted-to-the-deceased department, and “Punk Rock Love” was much funnier as the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl”.